Last fall, I was thinking a lot about A List Apart, where I’m the editor in chief. It had been a big year for us: we’d launched a new design at the start of 2013, and a whole bunch of strategic changes along with it. We started publishing columns and blog posts. We added staff to edit and wrangle those new sections. We created a sponsorship program to help pay stipends for those new staff and bump up our contributors’ honorarium. But over the course of the year, many of our ideas—from fixes to “phase two” enhancements to big new features—had lost momentum.

It was time for a kickstart—time to all come together to talk about where we were going, what we wanted to accomplish next, and, perhaps most importantly, how much was sustainable given our shoestring budget and “side project” status.

It was time for strategic planning.

I lead workshops all the time for my own clients, so at first I thought I’d lead this one, too. But I realized that, like my clients, ALA needed an outside perspective—someone who wasn’t mired in our day-to-day discussions. So I called in a favor to my friend Kevin Hoffman—who knows a thing or two about designing productive meetings—and asked if he could facilitate.

We spent the day talking about the magazine’s goals, brainstorming new features, and identifying projects we’d like to work on—everything from hiring a blog editor to open-sourcing the site. But playing “client” wasn’t easy for me. Questions like “but who will actually get that done?” and “where will we find the time?” rose up into my throat and sat there, heavy and suffocating. I was overwhelmed.

In other words: I experienced precisely what I’d long known my clients were feeling as they worked with me on major strategic shifts. But now I think I’ve found a way to help—and it’s almost laughably simple: Just do one thing.

Everything is impossible

The problem with planning sessions, massive content strategy documents, or just about anything else that’s extensive and long-term-oriented is that you have to talk about both the big things, like vision and goals, and the endless minutia, like staff resources and budgets, at the same time. All that zooming in and out is exhausting—like you’re standing in the middle of the Swiss Alps trying to get the peak of the Matterhorn to fit in your camera’s frame without sacrificing any detail of the spring Edelweiss in the foreground. No matter how many shots you take, you’ll never find an angle that captures the depth and complexity and sheer enormity of the scene in a single photo.

Everything isn’t just impossible to do at once. It’s impossible to see, too.

Everything isn’t just impossible to do at once. It’s impossible to see, too.

At ALA, we ended up with a list of ideas approximately 14 miles long, with projects ranging from “fixes” to huge new initiatives. We had stuff people were excited about, stuff that was boring-but-necessary, and everything in between. We had big-ass paper stuck all over the walls, but the same side-gig staff we’d always had.

We’d been hiking up that massive mountain of organizational goals all day, and we were tired. We were hungry. We wanted to get back to our families and yoga classes and Netflix binges. Every time we looked up, we didn’t see the top. We saw impossible.

So Kevin helped us take our massive list and identify priorities and dependencies. Then he went through the top few items—ignoring the rest, for now—and asked three things:

  1. What needs to happen first for this initiative?
  2. Who can own it?
  3. When can you do it?

It sounds simple, because it was. But what was so useful about it wasn’t just the exercise we did (in fact, Gamestorming’s closing activities include several approaches to prioritizing items). It was the permission we had to not do everything—to not even think about everything—for a moment.

We each only had to do one thing.

The rest of the mountain was still there, of course, and we had to take note of all the things we’d set aside for later. But at that moment, we didn’t need a guide explaining every turn the path would take before we eventually reached the summit. We needed someone to tell us that tonight’s camp is just around the next corner, and ask us who wanted to pitch the tents and who wanted to build a fire.

Finding your thing

I’ve been working with a client I love for a few months now. They’re a well-known sporting goods brand, and they’ve been trying to make sense of massive amounts of content—from technical specs to service information to marketing copy to minute details about color, sizing, and other facets of their thousands of different products.

They came to me with a big product-focused CMS in place, but without much strategy behind how content was entered and managed in it. They wanted to clean things up and rethink the system so they could better communicate their evolving brand, provide customers with information where and when they needed it, and efficiently reuse content on multiple websites, in print, and in stores.

This was most definitely a Matterhorn of a content problem.

We pulled together folks from a bunch of different areas—marketing, content management, UX, translation, and more—for a full-day session of modeling and mapping. We started big—really big—laying out ideal customer experiences, end to end, and all the bits of content they would get along the way. Then we worked down to the details, sketching out relationships between content and opportunities for interconnection and reuse.

Around 4:00 p.m., my client scanned the reams of butcher paper scrawled with content models littering the room, exhaustion creeping across her face.

“There’s so much to do.”

And there was. But it wasn’t time to worry about that. It was time for a beer.

The next day, we sat down and listed all the types of content explored during the workshop and considered each one’s importance to the business, centrality to customers, and relative complexity. Suddenly, our “one thing” became crystal clear—and so much easier to tackle than that stack of Sharpie-drawn models from the day before. We needed to address product details:

  • Products are the core of the company, so product details are the core of the content.
  • Many other kinds of content, like maintenance information or news, revolve around and are therefore dependent on products.
  • All audiences need product details, not just a couple niche groups.
  • Products were already highly structured so they could tie into other merchandising systems, so we weren’t starting from scratch.
  • Writers spend enormous amounts of time creating new content for products at the beginning of each year—giving us an opportunity to see results in just a couple months.

So we made a number of changes to how products are structured, each of them small on its own: breaking this marketing description into two stackable chunks, placing length limitations on that technical spec. We also produced simple cheat-sheets that explained the new format, providing the writers with guidelines on both what to produce and how it fit into the big picture.

We’re still nowhere near tackling everything that came out of our workshop. But we did one thing. And it felt good.

We didn’t overhaul anything. No paradigms were shifted. All we did was make this job—a job known for tight deadlines and high volume—a little less stressful. All we did was make the resulting content—thousands of product descriptions from multiple writers—a little more consistent.

We’re still nowhere near tackling everything that came out of our workshop. But we did one thing. And it felt good.

One thing adds up

It’d be easy to say that these micro changes are tactical—that they’re an implementation detail, that they’re “in the weeds,” that they’re too granular for us strategists to be concerned about. I call BS on that.

A content model or a workflow change is not a strategy, true. But plans and vision statements don’t mean a thing unless people actually implement them. And the best way to do that is to make the big picture feel achievable—like progress is already underway. Like they’ve already started climbing up the mountain.

The best way to get people to abandon a perfectly good strategy? Overwhelm them with everything all at once.

So do the planning. Invest in thoughtful strategies and goals. Care deeply about the big picture. Then put all that aside, for a minute.

It’s time to do just one thing.


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4 Comments

  1. Thanks for posting this. I’d add “…and just do the best that you can.” I’ve seen clients paralyzed by the need to do that “one thing” perfectly, too. It can stall the work, when a “do one thing” win could galvanize the team to take on the next thing…and the next…

  2. Emily Warn says:

    I bet focusing on one thing in developing a content strategy also helped their business strategy. They’re so interrelated.

  3. Max Johns says:

    This is a good, simple approach to things. I like it. Getting the team together and breaking work down into doable chunks, prioritising those chunks and putting a person’s name alongside it…sounds like an agile approach to content strategy.

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